The AIG Women’s Open at Royal Troon in August is the next major staging point in the return to competitive golf after the European Tour tentatively pronounced the comeback event from the coronavirus lockdown, the Betfred British Masters, a success.
Only the next two weeks will tell if the Tour’s bio-bubble at Close House near Newcastle, their stringent health plan and procedures and the network of closed hotels has resulted in no COVID-19 infections. The Tour moved on to the second event, the Hero Open at Hanbury Manor at Hertfordshire, with chief medical officer Dr Andrew Murray confident the plan had worked.
“I’m most pleased for the golfers, the caddies and European Tour staff, it’s good for them to get back to work,” said the Scot whose background in public health was crucial to the Tour’s strategy.
“I think people coming in could see it was an operation geared toward safety but people were smiling, they were pleased to see each other and see the golf course.
“Everything we asked has been well observed. Of course people aren’t perfect as human beings but we’re all learning and it would appear the tournament has concluded successfully.”
A similar plan to the Tour’s will be installed at the Women’s Open, with Dr Murray collaborating closely with the R&A and women’s tours.
“We’ve already seen outstanding work by our colleagues in Scottish Football and Scottish Rugby to produce robust plans to safely return for their sports, so we continue to plan, see what’s going on in other sports, and focus on those we’ve got coming up in England, in Wales, in Iberia, and when we return to Scotland,” he continued.
“We’re working closely with our colleagues at the R&A, we’ve had very constructive discussions with the Scottish Govt, with public health and the Ladies European Tour, just to make that the eventd can proceed with confidence, and in a fashion agreed by all health and medical experts and by governments.
“It’s a a fantastic venue for women’s golf, I’ve spoken to players in Korea and America and they’re buzzing for women’s sport to be up and running, and for that to be happening in Scotland, the first major back in Scotland, that’ll be a special moment.
“We’ll do all we can to preserve the safety and the opportunity for that championship.”
The Tour strictly applied facecoverings and distancing at all indoor parts of their bubble, and a network of hand sanitising units produced an average 3000 “squirts” a day.
“We were confident we had the right approach but we also recognise COVID is extremely unpredictable,” added Dr Murray. “We still had to be able to react and get things right.
“We had test events, we’ve observed other sports, and we had the two events in Austria working with their public health and the players there. There hasn’t been major adjustments, but that’s not to say there won’t be any in week to come, as the virus evolves, as government regulations evolve and as we learn more about how professional golf plays in this new era.”
The venues used last week had been “absolutely fantastic”, and the tour had the benefit of going to familiar places in the next few weeks, he added.
“We have to recognise we are an international event, so although there’s been no spectators this isn’t the monthly medal, we’re bringing players from all over the world and they need to know it’s a safe environment.
“Close House have been absolutely outstanding in their attention to detail on this. Lee Westwood really gets how important safety is and has shown real leadership, so have David Howell, Thomas Bjorn and other senior players explaining what we’re looking to do.”
Players from countries not exempt from quarantine such as the USA, Sweden and South Africa – and Spain from this weekend – were allowed to play if they came directly into the bubble and stayed in separate accommodation from others, then moving directly and without contact to the new bubble at Hanbury Manor.
“We need to take all the precautions necessary with our athletes and ensure we’re doing it right not just for the competition, but for the health of everyone.” added Dr Murray.
“The virus has shown time and again it can spread rapidly, it doesn’t care if you’re a famous golfer and it goes from person to person. We have to try to minimise the risk to all involved.”
At the same time, golf emerging from the lockdown early seems to have drawn attention to the health benefits – both physical and mental – of the game, he agreed.
“It’s easy to forget just how powerful as tool for health that golf can be,” he added.
“Golfers can live five years longer than non-golfers and there’s a number of reasons for that. But it is a physical activity and there also are range of mental health and well-being benefits.
“Playing again helps promote the huge benefits that golf can bring. Lee and the players have done a brilliant job this week making sure people know about the health benefits of golf so we can be a real force for good.”